Friday, July 29, 2011

New Home for the Gecko

Tiger is going to be in a middle school science class this year!  I have a feeling that the students will love him.  Animals have a way of reaching the students who are tough to reach - somehow this little lizard can break down walls that humans can't.  I have seen the meanest kids in my class talk to animals in an incredibly loving manner.

The gecko is also good for teachers.  Nothing quiets a class down faster than "Well, I guess I'll have to take Tiger home because this class is too loud for him." 

He's a good pet.

Four years ago: Back to School Specials

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

You're OK

I'm working with a teenage girl right now who's having a hard time.  There's custody issues and anxiety and probably depression and definitely ADD.  I wouldn't be surprised if there were some other mental health diagnoses as well.  Recently her guardian (another family member) decided that she didn't need her ADD medication.  This guardian decided that the girl was just "dramatic" and would be fine without the medication.  She didn't consult the doctor, the therapist, or the child.

When I saw this student, she had been off her meds for a couple of days and was really upset.  She probably was being dramatic - teenagers tend to - but I think she was also going through some withdrawal.  After all, if you're going to go off any medication, it's a good idea to do so in a doctor-prescribed way and not just have it yanked away from you.  She had also been doing really well on this medication and was feeling stable and calm, so to have it taken away very obviously shook her up, which probably compounded any issues she was already having from adjusting physiologically.

At one point, she got really frustrated that her handwriting was worse than usual (the photo is her writing from the week before at the top and her writing from the week she was off her meds at the bottom) and broke her pen in half.  Then she cried because she didn't want to break things.  I didn't know what to say so I just kept saying, "It's OK,; you're OK right now.  I know you feel bad but you're OK and we're going to do this."  It was pretty pathetic but it seemed to calm her down somehow. 

I said that to my third graders a lot too.  Some of them had seen some horrible things and people had left them who shouldn't have left them and they just hated themselves.  Those kids were smaller and I knew them better and I could hug them and say "You're OK.  I'm taking care of you right now and you're OK."  I think the most I could give them was a feeling of being OK just for that one minute.

One year ago: Creativity

Two years ago: Decisions

Three years ago: My Time With the Three-Year Olds

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I really liked this kid.  The school he went to before ours was George W. Bush Elementary School (in another city).  He told me "I don't know why they named a school after him.  He didn't do nothing for education.  A wise 8-year old.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Meet a Child: "Kobe"

This is a kid who moved away mid-year because his mom was terrified of all the violence - especially after someone came and threatened his teenage brother.

Writing about himself:

My name is Kobe. I am 8 years old and my birthday was born in 1998. My eye is dark brown and my hair is black and I like to play footbal. I like to play with my best friend. I am very talkative and honest. I am very cook and I am very nice. I make friends. I like school. Sometimes I get to change my card to Green that mean I am in trouble. Sometimes I stay on Blue. I got friends and we went to the coliseum the A's won the other day the other day the raider lost. I like school. I have a nice teacher.

On imagining he was in a scene from a book where the kids walked past a barbecue and a church:
I imagine I went to church and when it was over we had BBQ burgers. Our preacher was light skined with black hair. It was fun at the end and "We love God, and love you Jesus." In there it smell like strawberries. My cousin my aunties and my brothers and sisters, my mom, brothers and sisters.

He is talkative and nice and honest. And I do miss him!

Two years ago: Poison Oak

Four years ago: Meet a Child: Kobe

Five years ago: I'm On Summer Vacation!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

All These Kids

This post is something I want to say every year.  at least.

Monday, July 19, 2010

All These Kids Are Ours

A few times a month, I find that I can't sleep because I am worried about foster kids.  This might seem strange, because I don't currently know any kids in foster care.  I used to when I was teaching third grade - and I knew a great many more who maybe should have been in foster care - but I don't currently know any.  I don't think it's strange though - in fact, I think we might be better off if we all worried about kids in foster care, and not just a couple of times a month.  Not because worrying really helps anything, but because it would show that we really do value all kids.

We don't, you know.  Of course, everyone will say that they believe that all kids are worth the same but it's not true.  It's natural to value your own kids above everyone else's - I'm not saying that it's not.  But I think we also value kids that are like our kids above others.  I'm probably making a few people angry by saying all this but it wasn't something I believed until I began teaching in the area that most of this blog is about.  During my almost 8 years at that school, I learned a lot about inequality and how easy it is to ignore - when you're not the person getting the short end of the stick.

It's a cliche by now, it's been said so often, but poor kids, usually black or Latino, are not valued in this country as much as their upper-middle class white counterparts.  I don't think I believed that from my nice liberal suburb but it's pretty obvious when you see it firsthand.  The police taking far, far longer to respond to an attempted kidnapping at our school than is acceptable - just one example.  The district not coming to fix serious problems at the school - there's another. Taking the school off-line and not having a staffed librarian so that there is no way the kids can perform research?  Wouldn't happen in the schools I went to.  Vacancies all year, a lack of substitutes, incompetent principals - more examples.  District personnel talking down to parents and making them cry in meetings that were held to help their children - it starts getting hard to ignore.  No grief counselors available - or any mechanism for help at all - when parents and other relatives get shot or stabbed and the child comes to school anyway because there isn't anywhere else for him or her to go?  Not considering it news-worthy when we have to stop teaching for lockdowns - over and over. I have many more examples in this blog and even more than I haven't yet been able to write about.  I promise you, most of these things would not have happened at a mostly white school in the hills.  And they certainly wouldn't have happened over and over.

If we really truly considered all kids to be worthwhile, we wouldn't allow this.  Or at least, they would be isolated events and people would get angry and change things.  Because each of these things - and more, like kids getting shot because of the neighborhood they were walking in - is worth getting angry about.  These kids deserve so much more - they deserve more than apathy and indifference.

The reason this ties into worrying about foster kids is that I've had a few interesting conversations lately about adoption.  Usually the conversation turns to "would you ever adopt?" and the person answering says it's too expensive, it takes too long, or you just don't know what you're getting.  Well, sort of.  It is expensive and there's a long waiting list, when you want white newborns.  There are other options, such as fostering to adopt, that are usually tossed out before being considered too seriously.  Of course, there are some pretty compelling reasons for this.  It is probably much harder.  (Although I never take the argument that you know what you're getting when you have a biological child very seriously because you can be awfully surprised by someone you're related to.)  It is definitely more heart-wrenching.  You have to deal with children who have suffered, some of them horribly.  It takes an incredible amount of investment and learning and professional help and you may have your heart broken.  Here's the thing.  I've had my heart broken by these children - they are worth it.

Yes, it's harder.  There is a reason that children who aren't adopted by age two aren't likely to be adopted, ever.  But that fact devastates me.  Older is not too late - it's just harder.  Damage is not hopeless - except if everyone gives up on the kid who has suffered the damage.  And I think that kids - especially those who have suffered - are worth the hard work.

I'm a Christian, as you probably know.  The Bible seems to agree with me.  Over and over, it talks about helping the poor and the oppressed, the orphans and the fatherless. I think that many of us believe this in theory but it's really scary to put into practice.  It definitely involves opening ourselves up to pain - it can hurt just to realize how much injustice there is around us and how much children are suffering, let alone actually seeing it.  But nothing will change if we don't.

I do feel like somewhat of a hypocrite, because I have neither adopted nor fostered children.  My reason is that I don't think I can handle being a single parent.  It is something I really want to do - I think I dream about it like other women might dream about having biological children, and I really hope that the day comes when I either feel equipped to parent on my own or find someone who wants to join me in this kind of crazy undertaking. There are probably people who have thought about it but decided they can't handle the expense, the trauma, the extra work.  I know that it is an incredible commitment.  But maybe everyone can just consider it for a minute, and not rush to saying no, it's too hard.

In the meantime, I'm volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and hope to at some point be a court-appointed special advocate for kids (CASA).  There are other ways to help - volunteering at schools that need it.  Faith Network of the East Bay is a fantastic organization.   I'm sure there are ways to help kids in foster homes and group homes. There are probably many other ways to help that I have never heard of.  I guess my point is this: let's act like all these kids are ours.  

Then maybe I won't worry so much about the foster kids.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Teaching Tolerance Blogger!

Exciting news - I've been accepted as an official blogger for Teaching Tolerance (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center)

I have one blog published that can be found here.  (It was edited, I find it important to point out that I don't write beginning sentences with "so")

If you have been reading my blog and you have noticed any stories you want to see featured there that have to do with differences/diversity in the classroom, please let me know!  I've got to come up with some more topics.

Two years ago: Extra Work, Extra Money

Four years ago: Back from Vacation
                         What Do They Teach You in School?

Monday, July 11, 2011


Every good teacher knows that teaching involves a certain amount of strategic dishonesty.  Not necessarily outright lying, but trickery.  I've definitely been known to tell kids that the flashing red light of the motion sensor (to turn the lights on) in the classroom was a camera recording their behavior so their parents and the principal can see how they are acting. 

Yesterday, I was working with a particularly difficult teenager on writing.  She has ADD and anxiety, and a bunch of other diagnoses, but I think the main problem, as it often is, is that she doesn't feel like anyone wants her.  She gets shuffled around from guardian to guardian and it's entirely possible that some of them have told her outright that they don't want her.  She is constantly trying to distract me and complaining and telling me she can't do things.

We've been working on writing and she's getting pretty good at writing about what she's experiencing.  It was time to introduce her to the standard five-paragraph essay format and she had been pretty resistant in the past when it was brought up.  To be fair, that doesn't sound like fun for anyone, really, and it's summer.  I don't blame her.

Since she had been so resistant, though, I decided to try a different approach.  I had her tell me about three types of art she enjoyed.  I told her I'd take notes if she wrote about it after and she agreed.  I wrote it in the basic outline form - scary Roman numerals and all - but didn't let her see until I was done.  It looked something like this:

I. Introduction
       A. Introductory statement
       B. Thesis statement: I like all types of art, but especially painting, drawing, and pastels.
II. Body
       A. I am best at acrylic painting
             1. People introduce me as a painter
             2. I took an adult class once because I was too good for the kids' class
             3. I like to paint landscapes and portraits

And so on.

When I showed her, she looked at me strangely.  Then she read it and she said "I don't know how to write a thesis statement."  I told her that she had come up with that; I had just written it down.  "Remember when I asked you to tell me what the whole thing will be about, in just one sentence?  That's a thesis statement."

Then I told her not to worry, that we weren't writing an essay yet.  We were just writing an introduction.  I folded down the paper so she could only see that section and told her that the introductory statement could be anything that would get me interested in her art.  She wrote it with no problem at all.

I folded down the paper again so that she could only see the notes for the first body paragraph.  I told her that she could write the paragraph any way she wanted, but that it had to have all those statements in it.  She asked if it should be in that order and I told her to think about how she would tell someone if she were speaking.  She wrote a perfectly decent paragraph and told me it was really easy because "it was all there first." 

Doing this one paragraph at a time, folding and unfolding the paper so that she couldn't see any of the outline except the one paragraph that she was working on, she got the whole essay done in about 30 minutes and didn't complain once.  When we finished, I informed her that she had just written a five-paragraph essay.

"But I don't know how," she said.  "You just did it," I pointed out.

If you don't know you're doing it, it turns out you don't know that you can't do it.  I asked her if she could do it again and she said yes, it would be easy.

Of course, had I told her that this is what we were doing, there would have been tears and arguments and distractions and urgent trips to the bathroom.  Sometimes it's better for kids to be fooled - at least until they figure out that they could do it all along.

Four years ago: Who Puts These People in Charge of Money?

Five years ago: Back in the Day

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Aren't All Children Worth the Same?

I wish the answer was yes.

I had a conversation recently with a friend about why the police always took so long to respond to calls at our school... like attempted kidnapping.  I was so angry and so confused why none of the people around me were angry - they all seemed resigned to it.  The custodian explained to me. She said, "Oh, honey, they don't care about us?  We all just n-----s to them."  I think the acceptance was harder for me than the actual problem of the slow response time.  The fact that these kids and their families were so used to being treated like this that they didn't even think to question it any more.. .that's the problem.

I wrote the post below two years ago but nothing's changed.  I wish it would.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

WHEN are We Going to Stop...

...teaching kids who aren't white that they are worth less than white kids?

If you think this isn't affecting children, or that I'm a crazy liberal who's making too much of it, I suggest you work with children of color for a year and then report back. In the eight years I taught at the school in the inner city, I heard countless - and I actually mean countless - instances of kids complimenting each other on light skin, lamenting dark skin and kinky hair, talking about "good hair," talking about wishing they were white, commenting on how much prettier white people are, how much more money they have, how it's better to be white, how the police would treat them differently if they were white, how the school would be better if they were white kids...

I wish they were wrong.

Two years ago: WHEN Are We Going to Stop
                        Something Good in the District

Sunday, July 03, 2011


The thing I like the most about teaching is not teaching; it's finding ways to connect with the kids, especially the kids who don't think that teachers have anything in common with them.  It's not that hard - I really do enjoy a lot of different books, movies, music, etc., and I'm very curious, so I've learned about many things even if I don't necessarily enjoy them.

When I assess a new student, the first thing I ask them is what they like.  Of course, there are different ways to do this depending on how old the child is.  If the student is little, I ask them what they like to play and who they like to play with.  If they're older, I might ask them what they like to read or what movies they like to watch.  Sometimes it takes a few questions and sometimes they look at me like I'm saying the dumbest thing they've ever heard... until I get to the question that is something they love. 

With my newest student, it's Harry Potter.  She is 12 years old and she loves Harry Potter.  She told me no, she doesn't like TV, she doesn't like music, she doesn't like sports - and her whole body language was tuned out - and then I got to books and movies.  I told her I've read all the books and she said she's read the first three but after that "they get really long" but she loves the movies and she's going to dress up as Dobby the house-elf and go see the movie at midnight on opening night with her sister and she can't even sleep because she's so excited and...


So, now I have the motivation to get her to write.  She doesn't like to write - oh, but if she can write about her Dobby costume, she'll do it.  She doesn't want to keep a journal.  But if it's a Harry Potter journal, that's a whole different story.  The questions started coming: Can she write about the movie after she sees it?  Can she write about all the different costumes?  [Note to all teachers and parents: if a kid says "Can I write about _____?, the answer is yes.]

Connecting to a kid like this brings a whole different dynamic to the relationship.  It can be hard if you're not used to trying to keep authority , because you don't want to lose that part of the relationship.  But when it's balanced, I think it really builds respect and even makes the student more willing to do what you're asking of him or her. 

It gets a little harder when you really don't have that much in common, but I think even just listening and asking questions about what the student is passionate about goes a long way.  I had one student who was being tutored in Spanish and, it seemed, the only thing he enjoyed in life was comic books, and he was WAY into them.  Giving him two minutes at the end of each session to explain a comic book character to me was all he needed to get motivated.  As a result, I also know more about Batgirl than I ever hoped to.

Three years ago: Separation Forms

Four years ago: Victim of Violence